On 11th December 2015 the House of Lords considered in Committee the Online Safety Bill which had been tabled by Baroness Howe. The Bishop of Bristol, Rt Revd Mike Hill supported the Bill and spoke favourably to an amendment, later withdrawn, by Lord Morrow on filtering of adult content and age verification policies.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I do not want to add too much to the way that the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, has framed his amendment today, but his point is worthy of serious scrutiny, simply because children living in households that are not serviced by the big four ISPs surely require the same level of protection as those in homes whose services are provided by the big four ISPs. Everyone in your Lordships’ House agrees that every child matters; I think that it is not at all controversial to say that.
It is a little confusing that the Prime Minister should seem so robust in his statement in the other place on 28 October, suggesting that the Government wanted to introduce legislation, yet the Minister—unless I misunderstand her—seems very happy to continue with a kind of voluntary regulation. I am not quite sure how that squares up. The point—and the noble Lord, Lord Morrow, makes it well—is that whatever we come up with cannot apply only to some children; surely it must apply to them all.
I would have thought we might regard it as good news that there is a need to introduce some legislation to prevent our approach to filtering being caught up by the new EU legislation, which provides us with an opportunity to correct a serious failing in our current arrangements. I hope that the Government—although I am starting to feel doubtful about this—might seize this opportunity with both hands.
I therefore put two questions to the Minister. First, I assume that the big four ISPs are saying to the Government, “We’re happy to continue providing filtering on the basis that we agreed, but only if you provide us with the requisite legal cover because we’re not prepared to be left vulnerable to litigation once the new EU net neutrality legislation comes into effect”. Will the Minister confirm that this is the point of concern, or at least a part of it? Secondly and more importantly, although she may have already dealt with this, I had thought that the deadline at the moment was 30 April but I think she has said that it has now been extended to December. I would be grateful if she could clarify that.
I hope that the Government are not going to produce an entirely new piece of legislation next year that they then rush through at high speed without the proper scrutiny of your Lordships’ House. That would be wholly unacceptable, and I would dearly love the Government to adopt the Bill.
The Bishop also spoke briefly during debate on amendments, later withdrawn, from Baroness Howe and others on the proposal to introduce a licensing scheme for foreign adult content websites.
The Earl of Erroll: [extract].. The point is that this Bill is a great idea and a great effort, as long as it does not mess up the field for doing something about it properly. The Bill will not actually cure some of the root problems, but there are elements of it which should go into some proper legislation. I entirely agree with the principles and thoughts behind it, and I have no problem with them, but I want something that works in the real world and which is not going to be bypassed because some of the solutions are too simplistic. That is the challenge, and hence the complexity. I hope we will see legislation on this subject next year that will allow for some real action to be taken which will protect children. I am not trying to champion an industry, but I am trying to draw lines.
The Lord Bishop of Bristol: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his explanation. I do not think that anyone in this House actually believes that what we will end up with will be—I think he has used the phrase—the silver bullet. What we want is to try to be as watertight and robust as we can. It is quite right of the noble Earl to point out to the Committee that it is inconceivable that we will be able to cover everything. I think that the issue is this: is what we have in front of us the right way to go ahead in trying to protect our children in the best way we possibly can? I believe that it is.
The Earl of Erroll: Perhaps I may respond briefly. Because I know that the Government fully intend to bring forward legislation next year, I did not want to get too involved in trying to sort out this Bill. I am afraid that I would separate the ISP and the filtering completely. I would put in proper provisions about age checking and vendors at the point of sale, look at the point of access on the internet, and start to construct something that would be future-proofed—that means as far as we can see at the moment. We need to block the loopholes, so I would separate filtering from the responsibility of vendors not to break the law. Vendors are in effect breaking the law at the moment, but the problem is how to stop them. There are websites selling stuff which should not be sold to minors, but the problem is in enforcement because those websites are getting around the rules. We have to write a slightly more complex Bill so that some things are separated out.
The concept behind filters in this Bill is absolutely fine and is there to underpin stuff. I have no problem with that, but I do not want people to think that it is the real solution to the challenge of protecting our children. We have to stop the websites and prevent access to them. It has to be done at the point of sale much more than just general access to the internet.